Do Something Else

When my pastor first approached me about stepping back into ministry, he caught me off guard. My history as a worship leader and media director had preceded me, and I fully expected to the conversation to head in that direction. I wish I could remember the exact specifics, but it was along these lines:

I was wondering if you would consider praying about stepping into ministry…

…as an usher. I think that it would be a great opportunity for you to serve while getting to know and love people in our church. And “I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God…”

…oh, and if you wanted to pray about leading worship occasionally, that’s fine too…

…but really seek the Lord about ushering. I think that it would be a good fit.

I cringed inside.

I am emphatically not a social person. There was a time where I made sure I was 10 minutes late for church every week to guarantee that I would miss the “turn and greet” segment of the service. I’ve always been drawn to ministries that isolate. As a worship leader, was either on stage or back stage. As a media director, I was well hidden in tech booths.

We all know the often quoted passage:

…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Seems like I had managed to completely neglect the “meeting together” aspect of my faith, despite being front and center in the church.

I knew he was right; if I was going to minister at the church, I needed to love the people in the church. After loving God, this is the second greatest commandment. What do you do when you love someone? You interact with them, you get to know them, you be a part of their life. It’s hard to do that when you’re separated by a physical wall.

After praying about it, I let him know to put me on the usher schedule.

I’ll be honest, I still get nervous in the days leading up to my scheduled weeks, but I think this role has been one of the most fruitful areas I have ever served in; it never fails that I leave those services more encourage than any other time.

Here’s what I would encourage you to do; take one service a month to serve in another boots-on-the-ground, face to face with people ministry. Serve as an usher or help at the info table; take orders at the coffee bar or help with children’s ministry check in. Get to know people in your church, love them, be a part of their lives.

Why is this important?

Trustworthiness: If a stranger walked up to you and asked you to follow them, would you do it? Okay, some of you might depending on the circumstances, but most wouldn’t. Every Sunday, you’re asking people to follow you as you lead them in worship. Have you given the people you’re leading a reason to trust that you’re not going to lead them the wrong direction? If you don’t give anyone an opportunity to know you, it’s going to be hard to earn any trust.

Humility: The unspoken reality of most of us worship leaders is that we all could be taken down a couple of notches. Being a musician on a platform tends to feed all the wrong parts of our self worth. Are you willing to regularly serve in an area of your church that isn’t glamorous or visible? If not, it’s time to seriously reevaluate your motives as a worship leader.

Leadership: This really is the other side of the humility coin. From an outside perspective, there’s a lot of glamour in leading worship. You have a platform, and from it you get to be a “Cool Musician”™. By serving in other parts of the church, you have an amazing opportunity to practically demonstrate that less visible areas of service are just as valuable.

“But, if I don’t lead worship, there’s nobody else who can.” Sure, I get this is the reality of most small churches. However, leading worship for every service your church has is not healthy. You need breaks, you need perspective. Use this an an opportunity to train up another worship leader from your congregation or reach out to like-minded worship leaders in your community to arrange for coverage.

I know this makes a lot of us uncomfortable, but there’s no growth without discomfort. Put down your guitar, spend some time in prayer, and then work a vitally important part of your craft that is often completely ignored.

A Guitarist’s Guide to Surviving the Bass

Bass players always seem to be in short supply. There’s not a lot of glamor in mostly playing one note at a time, and bass solos are seldom appreciated.

I recently had the privilege of sitting in on bass for a worship night at a church where a friend leads worship. While I’m not an amazing bass player, I’ve really come to look forward to the opportunities I get to play bass. I’ve come up with a few strategies that have really helped me move from just surviving the bass to playing it confidently.

Bass is a “One Note at a Time” Instrument

Unless you’re Victor Wooten, you’re only going to be playing one note at a time. No chords, period. Additionally, to get the cleanest tone out of the bass, all of the other stings of the bass should be muted with your hands to prevent sympathetic resonance. Without muting the strings, the bass will sound muddy and undefined.

When I was in the School of Worship, one of the most valuable instrument techniques I learned was from a bass lab that was taught by Gordon Rustvold. He employs an unusual method of muting the lower strings using his thumb on his right hand, sliding it up and down as needed. You can see an example of this in this video. Then mute the higher strings with your fretting hand.

This Pattern Will Get You Through Most Songs

 

I’m planning on talking about Nashville Numbers in the future, but here’s a quick rundown. In the major scale, each note is assigned a number. Based on the key of the song and the number you can work out the chord. The table below indicates the type of chord for each number and gives an key of C example of the system. Most simple songs make use of the 1, 4, 5, 6. Knowing how this translates in each key is useful for translating this pattern to the chord chart in front of you. I’ve marked 3 and 7 as passing chords. 90% of the time, you’ll use these as passing notes into the next note in the scale (7 to 1, 3 to 4). Additionally, I’ve marked these notes with the alternative inversions that are more commonly in worship songs.

 

Nashville Number 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Chord type (major key) Major

Root

Minor Minor

Pass

Major Major Minor Diminished

Pass

Example – Key of C C Dm Em

C/E*

F G Am Bdim

G/B*

* Indicates alternate inversion

Know what chords pertain to each number in each key. Know where these numbers fall in the pattern. When this is second nature, all you need to know is the root note and you can track with most songs.

Use Pitch to Simulate Dynamics

Bass sounds best when it’s consistently present. With this in mind, most sound techs will compress it quite a bit, killing most of the volume dynamics of the instrument. You can simulate dynamics by playing in higher octaves for softer parts of the song and lower octaves for louder parts of the song.

Neck Position Affects Tone

I’ve found it easier to get a consistent, warm tone by playing up around the 5th fret. When possible, I try to stay up in that range.

Follow the Kick

The kick drum sets the pulse of the song. While you don’t need to play a note with every kick, it usually makes a great starting point for the rhythmic elements of your playing.

Be Confident in the Changes

The Bass really should be only melodic instrument that occupies the low frequency, or your mix will sound muddy (1). However, when this is applied, if you make a mistake, miss a note, or arrive late, there’s nothing that going to cover it up. Know where you’re going and get there in time or it’s going to stand out.

Getting to the Note is Just as Important as Being There

After proper muting technique, this tip as made the most impact in my playing. The sure sign of a insecure bass player is the transitions between the notes. Unless it’s for rhythmic effect, try to eliminate gaps between the notes you’re playing. If you’re staying on the same string, slide into note. If you’re changing strings mute the previous note at the same moment you play the next note. Clean transitions are secret to sounding confident; know where you’re going and have a plan for getting there.

Have any bass tips for me? Leave them in the comments!

  1. Keyboardists, leave room room in the low end. Anything you add down there will just make the low end sound muddy. I made this mistake for years. Don’t be like me… Now, I’ll even highpass my pads and synths to leave room down there.

Tune Your Guitar

Tune Your Guitar

This is the musical equivalent to having to tell someone to wear deodorant. There’s no way to say it that isn’t awkward.

You need to tune your guitar.

There, I said it.

Maybe you never learned… Maybe you know something is off, but have no idea how to fix it… Maybe it sounds okay to you (but not to everyone else)… Maybe you have an aversion to blinking red and green lights…

Regardless, you need to tune.

Okay, the awkward part is over. Let’s talk about what we need to do to get this done.

Step 1: Invest In a Quality Tuner

Oh, it’s going to get awkward again.

Yes, you can tune by ear. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to play with a by-ear tuner that had anywhere as good an ear for tuning as they thought. A computer will always beat your ear. Tuning by ear should be be reserved for emergencies only.

I’m a big fan of the Boss TU-2 (now TU-3) pedal tuner. In addition to using as a tuner, it’s also a really convenient mute switch and great for getting your guitar unplugged at the end of the set if your sound tech isn’t paying attention.*

Make sure you pick up a power supply for your tuner. I’m willing to risk a 9V battery for a couple hours, but anything longer than that, it gets plugged in to power.

*As an aside, don’t leave your guitar plugged in when you put it on a stand. You’ll kill the battery in the guitar and will stress the cable. Mute with your tuner, pull the cable and hang it on the height adjustment knob on your mic stand.

Step 2: Plug Your Guitar Into the Tuner

While we’re discussing awkward things, let’s just get all this out in the open.

You really should have an undersaddle pickup in your guitar (sound hole pickups don’t sound great). Miking a guitar should be reserved for emergencies unless you have a really good reason; it’s too hard to get consistent tone and level with a mic. Undersaddle pickups can be purchased and installed for around $250. I like Fishman, but I’m not dogmatic. Consult with your local, reputable guitar repair shop or luthier.

Because you have a pickup in your guitar, plug that guitar into the tuner and then plug the tuner into the DI. Leave that tuner in line until you’re ready to pack up.

Step 3: Tune the Guitar

Know the names of each note for each sting before you attempt this. I once watched a worship leader break not one, but two guitar string because he just kept cranking the tuning pegs up and up until, trying to get a green light, without paying attention to the note readout.

E A D G B E

Commit that to memory. Also, know what your tuner does to designate sharps/flats. The TU-2 displays a small dot next to the note to indicate the note is a sharp. Don’t make the mistake of tuning to a sharp.

Start with the low E and work your way to the higher strings. Play each note and give it a second to settle in. Pay attention to the note display on your tuner to make sure you’re at the correct note for the string. If the light is to the left, the note is flat, to the right, it’s sharp. Shoot for the green light in the center.

Always tune up. if the string is sharp, tune down until you’re slightly flat and then tune up until the string is in tune.

Once you have tuned all the strings, start at low E and check them all again one more time. As you progress through the running process, it can cause the previously tuned strings to go a tiny bit flat.

Play a chord and check it by ear. If it sounds good, you’re all set.

See, that wasn’t too bad.

Good talk.

My Tuner Died, What Should I Do?

Have a smartphone? There’s great tuner apps that will get you out of a bind. I’ve use Guitar Toolkit on the iPhone and GuitarTuna on Android.

… but my phone is dead too!

Seriously?

Okay.

Fine.

I say this under great protest.

Tune by ear.

If you have a pianist, have them play each guitar note and tune to that. I find it helpful for them to play the root note and an octave up simultaneously. Then use the 55545 method to make sure the guitar is in tune with itself.

Buying a Microphone

At the time I accepted the invitation to lead worship at an acquaintance’s wedding, he told me that there would be sound equipment at the wedding chapel that I could use. All I had to do was show up with a guitar. Great! That simplifies things…

The first sign of trouble was the green, spit-bleached foam windscreen cover on the Samson SM58 knockoff. “I can take that off,” I thought to myself as I set up my guitar stand. After giving a copy of the set to the pianist, I finished setting up got a closer look. Embedded in the grill of the mic was dried bits of food.

I was literally singing into someone’s pre-chewed salad.

I stood so far away from that mic, not using it would have been equally effective.

“This must never happen again,” I thought to myself. When I got home that night, I went online and ordered a mic.

Sharing a mic can be almost as bad as sharing a toothbrush. A few of the more thoughtful churches I’ve visited have cleaned shared mics after each service with telephone disinfecting wipes. This is better than nothing, but there’s still a lot of gunk that gets absorbed by the foam behind the metal grill.

Hygiene aside, you may want to consider buying your own mic because you prefer the way it sounds to what is provided. Most churches I’ve visited provide something akin to the Shure SM58, a legendary mic, to be sure, but I’ve always found it dull and uninspiring.

A few notes on mic technology: Most mics are one of two flavors, Dynamic or Condenser. Shure has a great technical write up on the differences, but here’s my thought on the differences in three sentences. Dynamic mics are cheap and sturdy, but have a duller sound quality. Condenser mics are expensive and fragile, but sound more open and sparkly. Condenser mics also require the soundboard to send them power (called phantom power), and will not work if the soundboard can’t provide this power (unless you have an external power supply). This really isn’t as concerning as it sounds as almost all soundboards made in the 20 years have phantom power built in, but it’s worth noting.

Here’s a few of the choices that I have experience with and can recommend, and I’ve listed an alternative in each class that are worth a look too.

Shure SM58

Type: Dynamic
Street Price: ~$100

The Shure SM58 is the industry standard microphone. It’s the Honda Civic of Mics; It’s cheap, indestructible, and doesn’t sound bad. It’s a great first mic. Also, I’d consider this the minimum standard of mic to purchase, don’t bother buying anything less. Beware, the SM58 is the most counterfeited mic in the industry (yes, people make fake mics); only buy from a authorized Shure dealer or you may end up with a low quality knockoff.

Alternative: Sennheiser e835


Shure SM86/Beta 87

Type: Condenser
Street Price: SM86: $180, Beta 87:$250

These are the Cadillacs of the mic world. The Beta 87 might be the second most common mic that I’ve seen in churches, and it was my first introduction to stage condenser mics. I noticed the difference with the first note I sang into it; the mic had a open, shimmery, studio-esque quality to it. I knew I’d never go back to a dynamic mic. That said, I wouldn’t buy one because…

…the SM86 is, in my opinion, Shure’s best kept secret. It’s the lower cost SM version of the Beta 87 and it sounds just as good to my ear, for ~$70 less than the Beta.

Alternative: Heil PR 35 (Note: Dynamic Mic)


Neumann KMS 105

Type: Condenser
Street Price:  ~$700

This is the BMW 7 series of Mics. German engineered, super expensive, probably more mic than anyone needs. I had used Neumann mics in the studio and based on that experience, when I was choosing a mic for myself, their stage mic was at the top of my list. I didn’t have a wife and kids back then and I was leading worship a few days a week, so a $700 mic somehow seemed perfectly reasonable (how things change!). If you’ve got the expendable income, this mic is, in my opinion, unrivaled, but if I had to replace mine now, I’d probably get the SM86 for the best price-to-value ratio.

Alternative: Shure KSM9

Using Pad Loops in Live Worship

The reality of leading worship for a small congregation is that, unless you have an exceptionally musically inclined group, you’re typically not playing with a band. If you lead from a guitar, it can feel a little empty. There’s nothing wrong with this, but a simple tasteful way fill some of the gaps is the use of Ambient Worship Pads.

Pads in Theory

Ambient Pads or Drones take the place that would typically be filled by a keyboardist or an electric guitar player by creating a subtle texture underneath the song. Unlike more structured loops, they have no rhythmic elements or structure and work under any chord in the family of the selected key, so you don’t need an in-ear monitor system to play to a click. Play the file for the key the song is in, and the pads fill in the gaps.

Pads In Practice

I first purchased a set of these pads and experimented with them at a marriage conference before my hiatus. I found them very effective, but when I started leading again, I didn’t want to ease back into it without pulling out all the stops right out of the gate. This last Sunday, I got brave, precariously balanced my laptop on a music stand, and gave it a go again. It looked ridiculous, but it got the job done for a first attempt.

Using the pads filled in gaps and glued the songs and the set together; I felt more free to play less, knowing the pads would carry the simple or quiet parts. The unexpected reaction was most surprising; I noticed that our congregation was singing louder than I have noticed in the past. I believe that this might be attributed to the fact that the pads I used sat in the same frequency range as the human voice, lending a feeling of fullness in that range. I think that gave the congregants and the confidence to sing without feeling like they might stand out or distract those around them.

Setting Up Ableton Live

Triggering pads for playback during a set is actually more difficult than I expected. I thought I had simple requirements:

  • Playback of a File Starts with a Computer Key or MIDI Note Trigger
  • Ability to Define Multiple Start Triggers to Start a file that Corresponds with the Key of the Song
  • Playback Starts with a Fade In
  • Playback of Any FIle is Stopped with One Specific Computer Key or Midi Note Trigger
  • Playback Ends with a Fade Out

Ableton Live is typically my go-to for this type of application; the intro version of the software is only $99 and it’s very easy to assign playback of files in the session view to computer keys or MIDI events. However, for a application that excels in live performance, ending a the playback of an audio file with a fade out is surprisingly difficult. It’s easy to trigger the audio files as clips in the session view, but struggled to find a way to stop them with a fade out until I found an explanation on a forum(1)  that advised some clever routing and use of dummy clips.

I have two audio tracks in Ableton. In the session view, I drop the pad audio files into the clip slots on track one. Track one is routed to track two instead of master. In each of the clip slots on track two set to Monitor In, and on each of its clip slots except for one at the end, there is an empty audio clip that only contains a fade in automation. Then, when a scene is triggered, the audio clip in track one starts playing, and the automation clip in track two fades the file in. In my very last scene there is no audio or stop button in track one, and track two only contains an empty dummy clip that fades out the playback. Then, each of my scenes are set up to be triggered by either a computer key or MIDI event.

In place of Ableton Live, there are iPad apps that can perform the same function. I had used WT Director for aforementioned marriage conference, but it looks like the app hasn’t been updated in years.

My next goal is to replace the laptop-on-music-stand hacked together rig with a small Ableton controller like the Novation Launchpad Mini.

Where to Get the Pads

There’s several worship resource sites that sell packs of pads, typically a pack will contain a file for each key in the chromatic scale. That said, I wasn’t very enthused about what I found out there; most of the pads I found were just a few notes held down on a synth for 20 minutes. That’s fine, but I wanted something with more texture and a more organic sound, so I recorded my own, based on electric guitar swells. You can download my pad set of all 12 keys for free.

Of note: pad loops are are designed to work in major keys, however when playing in minor keys, typically the pad loop for the relative major will work. (2)

  1. http://loopcommunity.com/blocks/software/ableton/fading-out-loops-in-ableton-live-9
  2. “Each minor tonality has a relative major. This major relative is located a tone and a half above the minor tonality. For example, one tone and a half above A is C. Therefore, the relative major of A minor is C major.” http://www.simplifyingtheory.com/relative-minor-major/

Worship Leaders Toolkit

A crucial part of working your craft well is having the proper tools to do the job well. Over the years, I’ve amassed an kit of worship leading tools that I keep packed in a bag that I grab every time I lead worship, presented in no particular order.

For Everyone:

Fisherman’s Friend Lozenges

These throat lozenges taste horrible but if you’re ill, they’ll get your voice through a set.

Bottle of Water

Surprisingly, not always provided, readily available, and bad water can be worse than having none at all.

Vocal Microphone

Owning your own mic isn’t typically a necessity, but my reasons for bringing my own microphone are threefold: hygiene, quality, and consistency. Hygiene speaks for itself, but additionally I’m guaranteed the mic that I bring is not of suspect quality (who knew they sold mics in 10 for $100 packs?). I also know the tonal and proximity characteristics of the mic that I bring, and won’t be caught off guard. Here’s my mic buying guide.

DI Box, 2 Instrument Cables, 2 Microphone Cables, and Adaptors

99% of the time these items stay in the bag, but you don’t want to be caught without them. I’ve lead worship at some churches where you had to sort through a rats nest of ten cables before you found a working one.

I also keep a small tin of various adaptors with me. RCA to ¼”, Gender Changers, and a ⅛” to RCA cable.

iPad Mini

I don’t use an iPad on stage. I have really strong opinions about iPad music stands which I’ll share in the future. That said, the iPad Mini is a great item to have off stage as a reference tool.

Backup Paper Copy of Your Set

Unlike an iPad, paper doesn’t have low batteries, install software updates in the middle of a set, or break when you drop it.

For Guitarists:

2 9V Batteries

Don’t be the guy who needs to borrow batteries when your guitar or tuner dies. Just don’t. Keep two spares and be the hero who has batteries when someone else needs them.

2 Extra Sets of Strings

…especially when you’re leading worship at a retreat, hundreds of miles away from music store…

…not that I would know.

Extra Guitar Strap

I also know nothing about forgetting my guitar strap… for a retreat… hundreds of miles away from a music store.

Extra Picks

Bring enough to share.

Boss Pedal Tuner With Power Supply

Almost as important as being in tune, is the ability to quickly mute your instrument to tune or unplug your guitar.

I’m fond of the TU-2. I hear they make a TU-3 now. That’s one whole number better! It features great advances in tuning technology, I’m sure…

Kaiser Standard and Short-Cut Capo

Key changes happen, and they happen quickly with a standard capo.

The cut capo is the real hero, though. I once sliced my hand open the night before a set and lost the use of one of my fingers on my fretting hand. I was able get through the set with just a cut capo and two fingers.

For Pianists:

It’s rare for me to lead from piano, but when I do I’ll do some recon first to at least try to figure out what model of instrument they have. I’ve been running a laptop-based keyboard rig for over 10 years, so as long as what is provided has enough keys and a USB or MIDI out I don’t need to drag a keyboard with me.

Audio Interface

I don’t like fussing with the headphone jack on my laptop for output. I keep a small audio interface with my kit just to get the audio out of my laptop. The interface I have also has a MIDI input. Most keyboards have USB connections now, but drivers can be an issue and there’s still a lot of old keyboards out there that don’t have USB. I used the discontinued M-Audio Fast Track Pro, but the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 is great replacement (the 2i2 doesn’t have MIDI).

MIDI Cable

Proof that a well designed protocol can still be relevant after 40 years; MIDI just won’t go away.

MIDI to USB Converter

This little guy has gotten me out of some scrapes. My audio interface died, and I was able to limp along with this and rigging my headphone jack to a ⅛” to RCA cable with RCA to ¼” adaptors.

Sustain Pedal

I’m not a strong pianist; if the sustain pedal is broken or missing, I’m in bad place. I bring a spare.

Quiklok Adjustable Bench

If the provided bench is adequate, I use it as a laptop stand.

On Working Your Craft

After I left my full-time ministry job, I unintentionally took a five-year break from leading worship. I had some stuff to sort out, and I’m still sorting, but recently that break ended when my pastor reminded me that we don’t need to attain unattainable perfection before allowing God to use us.

So I picked a set, printed a cue sheet, and searched the basement for my DI box; the familiar ritual of it came flooding back to me and, honestly, it didn’t sit well. I had literally done this hundreds upon hundreds of times before, and despite all the changes in my own heart in the last five years, the physical act of leading worship hadn’t changed.

I fired off an email to a former music teacher/now friend. Summarized: I’ve been been strumming the same 16th note pattern on an acoustic guitar for 15 years. It was still perfectly acceptable, perfectly safe, and would be appreciated.

…but there had to be be something more.

But “more” can be a dangerous. “More” can be tasteless. “More” can be self-indulgent. “More” can be a distraction. In the past, I had thrown a lot of trends and gimmicks at the “more” wall and not a lot had stuck.

My friend replied:

Work your craft, come prepared, be sincere, work your craft, stay honest, work your craft, practice, plan, coordinate, and work your craft… make the songs yours… keep the melody singable, keep it true… and work your craft…

The rest is anointing… The breath of God… The unquantifiable thing called talent…

Work. Your. Craft.

And it will all find its way.

Well, shoot.

I got hung up on wanting “more”, but the “more” that is tasteful, selfless, and enhancing doesn’t come in a stomp box or with the latest loop pack, it’s the side effect of working your craft. And working your craft isn’t just the actual act of leading a set of worship. It’s preparing, practice, planning, coordination, learning, experimenting, building up others.

Some of these things come easily to me. Others, not.

So when nobody is complaining, what’s the motivation?

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men…  Colossians 3:23

The work isn’t for your benefit and it’s not for your congregation’s benefit. It’s not for men; it’s for the Lord. If that’s not motivation enough, it’s time to reconsider your calling.

So let’s do hearty work.